Sunday, February 26, 2012

Benefits of Fasting

The March 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine contains this article "Starving Your Way to Vigor: The Benefits of an Empty Stomach."

Since you can't access the online article without paying, I'll summarize. The author, Steve Hendricks speaks from the experience of having performed a 19-day fast which resulted in weight loss and a greater feeling of health. During that time he drank only water and maintained his usual activities, including daily exercise. He describes days of alertness and days of lethargy and says one of the reasons he did not prolong the fast after reaching his goal weight, was that others complained of his bad mood. I guess hunger will do that.

But Hendricks also gives a brief recent history of fasting in our culture. Obviously, Americans do not like to skip meals, yet he describes medical breakthroughs that have shown fasting to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and epilepsy, especially in children. He mentions that fasting has improved chemotherapy results in cancer patients, as well as reduced the side effects of chemo. But again and again, interest in fasting has always been short-lived in the U.S. and our medical establishment prefers consumer-based treatments like pills and shots.

You might be wondering how one could possibly go without food for days, unless they have extreme will power, but Hendricks explains that the longing for food fades after about four days. He was fine on just water for 19 days, but my favorite example is one he gives of a 456-pound Scot who, in 1965, approached Scottish doctors for help losing weight. They monitored him closely and kept him on water, vitamins and supplements for several days. When his weight loss progressed with no bad effects, the fast grew into weeks. Since his vital signs and health remained normal, his fast continued from summer to fall, and fall to winter. This guy made it down to his goal weight of 180 pounds after a fast that finally ended one year and 17 days after it had begun! He basically lived off of his own flesh for months.

But that's not what Hendricks recommends. In fact, at no point does he say fasting is a good way to lose weight, even though he did it. His article really focuses on things like the American Cancer Society ignoring research on the benefits of fasting on cancer patients, and the almost criminal neglect of American medicine to use fasting to save the lives of epileptic children. Fasting can result in a permanent reduction of seizures. The same is true of blood pressure and, apparently, weight. He mentions that the 24-hour fast has been used to remedy colds and the flu, and that fasting once a week or even every other day can extend one's life.

I've been reading more about fasting and how even doing it one day a week can improve one's health. There's a process called autophagy that Wikipedia describes as "a major mechanism by which a starving cell reallocates nutrients from unnecessary processes to more-essential processes." Basically, a cell without its usual nutrients coming in, will burn its own waste products for energy. This increases the health of the cell as it means getting rid of dead viruses and dead cell membranes, etc. that clutter the cell when fresh fuel is constantly coming in. Some even believe one of the reasons exercise improves health is that exercise also increases autophagy. Since I read that a couple of weeks ago, I've been more focused on exercising all day long (taking stairs, etc.). Let's hear it for autophagy!

I read the Harper's article on Friday and decided to try it. I'm currently fighting a cold and, as I previously posted, have a new determination to weed sugar and wheat out of my diet. Why not start my new health habits with a 24-hour fast? It would be great to lose these cold symptoms by Monday. A 24-hour fast gives an American liver a much needed rest from having to plow through all the junk we force it to process hourly. The digestive system also has a chance to clean out and renew, as your body burns internal resources to keep its energy up.

I ate lunch yesterday and have had nothing but water and some herbal tea since. It's now 12:56 p.m, so I'm hitting the 24-hour mark right now. I tend to be a hungry person and my stomach lets me know the second I've gone more than three hours without eating, so it hasn't been easy. Mr. Hendricks described no great hunger pangs on his first day. Not true for me, although I am feeling more alert than I would have expected.

I'm about to take a drive, so I'll go ahead and have a snack first. Although I'm awake, I also feel a little light-headed. I'm not the most confident driver and don't like to take chances. I think I've done enough to see if this experiment has shortened the life of my cold. Maybe I can kick out the symptoms sooner than in the week or ten days it usually takes.

Hendricks' article certainly counters the American tradition of cleaning your plate three times a day. I doubt it will start a new interest in fasting, although I remember recently reading an article on how fasting improves chemotherapy results. Will this message start to seep into mainstream media? It would be great if it did because fasting for improved health and weight loss is an idea we Americans could definitely use.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Not a Lenten sacrifice

The challenge: from 26 February to 4 March I'm cutting out all wheat and processed sweets. These foods give me stomach aches and keep me awake at night, so I've got to make a change. I think if I could just get a streak going and stop the sugar roller coaster, I might be able to stick to healthier habits. It's worth a try anyway. I've recruited a co-worker to help me stay honest.

It turns out that the Catholic holy season of Lent started on Wednesday. What a coincidence! But unlike those who are eating healthier for 40 days, I'm cutting carbs for myself, not Jesus.

I remind you: in 1986 I gave up Catholicism for Lent.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I'm not this animal's "mom"

If I'd known that getting a dog would cause some people to call me its "mom," I would have hesitated even more than I did. If I had wanted to be a "mom" I would have either given birth to or adopted a child. I didn't do either of those things and I prefer not to be referred to as if I did.

I understand this makes me unique among the DINK (Dual Income, No Kids) dog owners. Many dog-owning couples without kids -- either because they didn't have them or are empty-nesters -- like to think of their pets as their children. They might call them "kids with fur" and refer to themselves as "mommy" and "daddy." I don't get it.

Many people, including actual parents of human children, back me up on this. They know an animal might be considered a family member, but believe that a pet is no son or daughter and a pet owner is no parent.

But some DINKs don't care that they aren't actually preparing Tigger or Bear for an independent life as a contributing member of society. They still like to imagine that their animals are feline or canine offspring. I guess if someone else wants to think of herself as the "mommy" of a 65-pound dog, so be it. I'm practicing my polite responses to being referred to as Ozzie's mom:

Maybe: "Do I look like his mom? I was hoping the laser treatments were working better than that."

Or: "I don't really like being called mom. Maybe we could call me his aunt."

Or: "You know, Bob doesn't mind being called Ozzie's dad, but maybe we could call me Ozzie's dad's live-in lover."

Or maybe I'll just leave it at: "I'm sorry, I'm not into being called Ozzie's mother. I prefer the word owner."

But some people don't like the word owner, I guess because it makes Ozzie sound like a piece of property or merchandise. I'm bewildered by them. The word owner feels right to me.

After a rough start, Ozzie has grown on me and I'm very happy with him, but I might never be an animal lover if that means embracing this odd concept of mothering a grown adult of another species. I'm training and caring for Ozzie, but I'm not sending him to college, setting up a trust fund for him or willing to protect him with my life. This pitbull mix is not going to propagate my DNA or carry my name forward. He will neither comfort me in my old age nor disappoint me by shooting up a supermarket, supporting a candidate like Rick Santorum or writing a blog that exposes all my mistakes as a mother.

I chose not to take my chances with motherhood in part because I don't trust myself to safely raise a daughter or son. I can't avoid making mistakes with Ozzie, but at least there's only so much damage an emotionally scarred dog can do in the world. This limits my fear of what could go wrong with the way this animal turns out. He's not a person and I'm not his mother. That level of responsibility and intimacy is simply not there and I'm extremely uncomfortable when someone suggests it is.

[No, Ozzie's eyes aren't really blue. They just look that way in the photo.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What is it like to be married?

[Photo taken at L. Woods Tap and Pine Lodge.]

It seems to me that married people often hedge when asked what being married is like. They say things like "marriage takes work," and "every marriage is different." When I was single, this answer made me think, "Yeah, yeah, all marriages are different. Spill the beans about yours."

On this Valentine's Day, I will now spill the beans about mine. I'll celebrate my fourth year of being a wife on March 25th.

How is marriage bad? (I answer only for myself)
1. Unemployment used to feel like a carefree time for me. As a wife, unemployment makes me feel like a drag on my husband. During the time I was married and unemployed, in 2008, I felt miserably guilty all the time, Bob felt tense, and our marriage was stressed.

2. Depression has a greater impact on me as a wife than it had on me as a spinster. During my bleak depressed, single years, I thought my depression would be alleviated by a romantic relationship. Wrong! Now when the depression takes over, I drag down someone else, too, and our marriage becomes strained. On top of feeling depressed, I feel guilty for not being the woman Bob married. Depression is definitely more stressful for me as a wife. At least when I was alone, I wasn't immediately impacting someone else who had no way to get away from me.

3. Not having my husband's support is far lonelier than being single. I thought fighting depression by myself was hard, but it's even more painful when the person who means the most to me isn't trying to understand what I'm going through.

4. I can no longer have parties at my whim or invite friends over for hours of chatting, without checking with my husband first. But his restaurant work schedule means he's rarely home on weekends, so it mostly works out.

5. The freedom to do as I will with what I earn is gone. Bob and I pool our incomes and spend our money together. I benefit because he earns considerably more than I do, but it comes with the price of having to agree on large purchases. I don't really want to spend $2,000 on a personal trainer who comes to my home, but I miss having the freedom to do so, without anyone being the wiser.

How is marriage good? (I answer only for myself)
1. Bob's love and support give me more solid grounding from which to heal my emotional wounds and psyche. This has had a huge impact on my progress on my personal issues and I am very grateful for it.

2. My husband is a very funny guy who makes me laugh. For a chronically depressive intellectual with a very specific sense of humor, a former class clown husband is invaluable.

3. In Bob, I have a life partner who will never indulge my desire to discuss "boring things." This is frustrating for me when I'm in the mood to talk about, for example, how self-destructive human nature is, but ultimately it's good for me. It's easy for me to spend too much attention on that stuff.

4. Bob's income allows me to do what I need to do for myself. I'll probably never match his earnings, but that's okay. It's fun to have access to it and save piles of it for rainy days (because nothing lasts forever).

5. Getting married gave me a mother-in-law. I've heard the stereotypes about women who believe their son's wife isn't good enough for him or who try to get in between the son and the wife or who won't mind their own business. I guess I got lucky because I enjoy my mother-in-law. She's an extremely nice person who really cared about me from the beginning just because I married her son. I can email her about any tiny thing that happens in our household and she's not only riveted, but replies promptly. This is great because I love writing about little stuff (as my blog readers know) and I love getting emails. Our email frequency has even increased since we got our dog because she loves dogs.

6. I'm in a relationship, but still have plenty of space. Bob matches me very well because he's fine with all the time I spend with friends, at the gym and reading (and blogging). We also have a big apartment with our own rooms. I don't want to be in a couple who spends every minute of every weekend together, and neither does Bob. I don't need to have dinner with my husband every night. We don't always travel together. This is a marriage with plenty of space and that works very well for me.

7. I'm happier. I just am. I don't attribute that solely to the marriage because I've also worked hard to achieve my own happiness, but happiness seems easier for me to attain inside this relationship. When I think of my past black depressions, I'm amazed to realize that this kind of daily contentedness is typical for many people, and finally here I am. Who knows how long it will last, but I'm hugely grateful for it today.

I will now take questions.

[Also see What is it like to be married, part two]

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Carbs, fats and biology, or "You're doing great just as you are!"

Weight gain and loss holds my attention more the older I get. The fantasy still lives, but I have to admit that being thin is no longer enough to make me look young. At the age of 45, I could weigh 115 pounds and still not look young-adult-slim because I'm no longer a young adult. These days, too little weight would actually make me look older than too much weight.

So it's just as well that getting skinny seems increasingly out of my reach. Here's the information that has recently impressed me:

1. Eating carbs triggers weight gain in a way that eating fat (and protein) does not.
2. Our bodies never stop trying to maintain the highest weight we've ever reached.

The first one is sobering, but I can live with it. The article I read about carbs vs. fats is called "Pasta, Not Bacon, Makes You Fat. But How?" It includes some nice graphics that show the steps by which carb-heavy foods trigger insulin production which slows fat burning and increases fat retention. And that chemistry, of course, leads to weight gain. As much as some might want to believe that weight is just about calories-in/calories-out it's not.

Weight is not just about calories-in/calories-out.

That is to say, that it's not enough to create a deficit in your daily calorie intake by exercising more and eating less. The kinds of calories you eat also matter because your body treats different kinds of calories differently. Calories that come from carbs like bread, pasta, rice, grains, potatoes, alcohol, sweets and sweetened drinks trigger your cells to hold on to fat. Calories that come from protein and fats don't do that. You eat an avocado and your cells continue burning fat at their regular rate. You eat a bowl of pasta with Italian bread and it all slows down. Check out the article. It might make you look at that sandwich differently.

The second item that caught my eye is even more sobering, and yet kind of a relief. "Losing Weight: A Battle Against Fat and Biology" explains that once you gain weight, your body sort of memorizes that weight and never stops fighting to stay, or get back to, that size.

Let's say I'm a 5'2" woman (157 cm tall) who eats about 2000 calories a day, exercises two or three times a week and stays around 125 lbs/57 kg (I'm just making up wild stories here). Let's say that during an emotionally difficult period, I hit 145 pounds. According to this research, my body chemistry locks in on that 145 pounds and wants to stay there. When I try to lose, my body begins producing more hormones to make me feel hungry. As my body senses that it's getting smaller, it slows down my metabolism, so I lose weight more slowly. Basically, my body fights me however it can to maintain those 145 pounds.

Now let's say that through raw determination I change my diet, cut out all the junk food and start exercising every single day for an hour. Gradually, (oh my god, so gradually), I get my weight back down to 125. Success! But you know what? I can't go back to my former 2000 calorie-a-day, 3-workouts-a-week way of life. Between exercise and eating, I must maintain a net of maybe 1800 calories a day to stay 125, and that's a permanent change. I can never go back to the way I used to live and still be 125 pounds.

Why, O Lord, why?

Because gaining weight changes your body chemistry.

Once you've been big, your body never stops wanting to be big.

Your body is genetically programmed to hold onto every scrap of energy it can. Any weightloss, even after extreme obesity, is seen on the cellular level as a crisis state. And those cells will never be convinced otherwise. They keep producing hormones to increase your appetite and lower your metabolism until you get all that weight back. Only then are they happy.

People who have lost large amounts of weight essentially live in a state of long-term starvation as far as their cells are concerned. Those cells never stop wanting to go back to the biggest size they were. This is why, once it starts, the battle against being overweight rarely ends.

But sometimes it does, and painlessly. My husband used to be a few dozen pounds overweight and was the chubby guy in many photos from about 15 years ago (yes, he approved me posting this). Several years ago he lost about 40 pounds by changing the way he eats and he's never had a problem maintaining it. He's simply never gone back to eating in the old way (all night long), but it doesn't feel like a sacrifice to him. So there are good weightloss stories, too.

Here's my good weightloss story: this news about biology working against me actually relieves me because it means I'm not a failure. My inability to get back to and maintain my ideal low weight doesn't mean I have no willpower or discipline. It doesn't mean I'm lazy and unable to stick to a plan. Lack of thinness is not a moral failing. I'm fighting a wretched evil battle with my own biology, a battle that is wicked hard to win. Let us all feel proud of every ounce we ever have managed to lose.

In fact, I congratulate myself for every pound I've managed to not put on. For years I've heard that it's easier to prevent weight gain than to lose weight later, but I never really knew what it meant. Now I know it refers to how difficult it is to permanently lose a significant amount of weight, and how, compared to that, avoiding weight gain altogether is much easier.

So let us all congratulate ourselves that we are not even chubbier than we are at this very moment. Better yet, think of your highest weight ever. Now add 50 pounds (or kilograms) to it. Now rejoice that you've never hit that weight. Isn't that great? You never have to worry about keeping that extra 50 off because you've never hit it to begin with. Well done!

I'm serious. From now on I'm taking it easy on myself about weight. I will focus on eating in a healthy way (low carb) and exercising for fitness, but no more tormenting myself with, "Well? When am I going to really take control and get back to my college weight?" From now on I'll say, "I look great. If I can just stay as I am, that's success right there!"

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sexy Black

Each year Virtually Home Chicago raises money with its Sexy Black event to benefit dogs and cats that happen to have black fur. O, the birth defect of being born with black fur!

From their website:
Itʼs a poorly known fact that black cats and dogs have the lowest adoption rates and the highest euthanasia rates. The reasons are unclear, and these bleak facts leave us mystified. (We love our black cats!). But across the board, black cats and dogs are statistically less likely to be adopted than their more brightly colored compatriots. Many animal rescue organizations are forced to ignore these animals because they are so difficult to place with already limited resources. Itʼs a vicious cycle that results in the needless destruction of many black animals. Virtually Home is determined to make their plight public. In doing so, we hope to help more of them find their forever homes.

Join me at this fundraiser on Saturday, February 25 from 7 - 10 p.m. For $25 you gain entrance to Gold Star Bar at 1755 W. Division Street, Chicago USA. You get a drink of choice and some munchies, but who cares what you get? You support the adoption of animals who are at high risk of being killed just because they're black. What's wrong with black?

Let's hear it for blackness!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Lake Geneva with Dog

Photos of our first vacation with our dog (in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin USA). The Brat Stop (pronounced "brawwt stawwp" because "brat" is short for "bratwurst") is a bar, restaurant and cheese shop. It's where Bob and I shared our first meal as husband and wife on our wedding day (3/25/08). We cut our wedding cake there and shared it with random staff and guests at the bar. Bob had three beers bought for him.

In the last picture, those cylinders were made of snow and in a couple of days Lake Geneva's annual snow sculpting competition was going to begin. Sadly, the warmest winter in years was kind of spoiling it. It didn't look like those huge snow cakes were going to last long.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Some vacation

This week (Mon-Wed) Bob and I finally got our getaway "weekend" to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin USA. It was our first ever vacation with our dog, Ozzie. We stayed at Eleven Gables Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast that's homey and quaint and accepts dogs. We had a lake view, a kitchenette and a separate entrance through a gated patio, for less than $140 a night. It was beautiful.

On Monday night the very friendly owner welcomed us and we settled in. I set up Ozzie's crate as he sniffed the room and we prepared to be in for the night. At about 10:00 p.m, Bob stepped onto the patio for a smoke.

And Ozzie took off.

I couldn't believe I had just removed his collar, which meant that he didn't have any identification on him. If the patio gate had been closed, Bob could have nabbed him, but Bob had left it open. We had done everything wrong.

Since we had just finished unloading the car, we hadn't even had a chance to walk Ozzie in this new environment and we knew he didn't know his way around. It was an awful feeling. Bob and I split up. We searched and whistled and searched and called, but it didn't matter: the dog was gone. Ozzie, a 45-pound pitbull mix, can run and he loves his freedom. Also, we had no way of knowing which way he had gone. It was Lake Geneva, a small town with plenty of generous lawns, dark fields and an only partially frozen lake. Was Ozzie searching through garbage? Was he chasing the sound of nesting geese on the water? Pooping on a pitch black private lawn?

After about an hour of looking for a black dog in the cold darkness, we came back to our room. Bob looked so distraught. I felt awful for him. Some vacation! He slumped in front of his computer, but couldn't concentrate on anything. I called the Lake Geneva police to ask them to let us know if anyone found a black pitbull mix with no tags. The dispatcher was very nice. When I hung up, Bob looked at me painfully and said, "What do we do? Just wait?" I said softly, "Yeah. We wait."

About ten minutes later we heard a noise on the patio. Our eyes locked. It felt like an eon went by as I waited for Bob to get up and check, but he hesitated until we heard the second slight creaking. Our faces went sharp with anticipation as Bob sprang up to slide open the patio door. And in strolled Ozzie.

My mouth dropped open. Bob grabbed a towel and rubbed down our damp dog, while I stared. Bob started out repeating "Oh my God" and then switched to repeating "Thank you for coming back." Bob hugged and petted our self-satisfied-looking dog as I called the police back to give them the update. The dispatcher was glad to hear it and said, "Smart dog." After I hung up, I said to Bob, "Yeah, we got %!&-damn Einstein here." Exasperation tempered my joy. I felt hugely relieved, but didn't join in Bob's love fest as I considered what had just happened.

After an hour and twenty minutes of naked freedom in a small, sleeping town surrounded by rural farmland, our three-year-old pitbull mix had found his way back to our temporary lodging, in a town where he'd never been. Increíble. Yes, it was impressive, but I was still annoyed. Ozzie probably had the time of his life, while we panicked and grayed.

On top of that, the little brat had just pranced in as if everything were normal, as if to say:
"It's beautiful outside, what are you guys doing in here?"or
"I love Lake Geneva!"
"Thanks for the run. Same time tomorrow night?"

O, this dog!

We'll never know what he did for that hour and twenty minutes or how the heck he found us again, but now the experiment has been run: if no one stops or catches him (Lake Geneva is clearly asleep at 10:00 p.m. on a winter Monday), this dog comes back. That is good to know. Also, if you're going to have a dog who's a runner, it's better if he's also smart enough to negotiate new terrain.

After that, when Bob stepped onto the patio for a smoke, we put Ozzie in his crate first. And that patio gate stayed closed, and Ozzie's collar stayed on until we got back home. Fortunately, it didn't take us long to recover from the trauma and Bob and I had a great vacation after that.

Increíble. Little monster. From now on I'm saying that "Ozzie" is short for Ozzilla.

A more angelic moment

Ozzie's back at the scene of the crime in this photo, but this time the gate was closed and he was tethered.